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The Key Ingredient for Effective Performance Management

Today's post comes to us courtesy of board member Dennis Miller, the Chief Employment Officer at Cal Poly Pomona Foundation.

For several years now, many in the HR world have been predicting the death of the annual performance review. However, it seems that reports of its death, with apologies to Mark Twain, have indeed been greatly exaggerated, as more than half of all organizations still conduct them.

And yet, according to corporate research and advisory firm CEB, only 4 percent of HR managers think their system of assessing employees is effective at measuring performance, while 83 percent say their systems need an overhaul.

Whether your organization does or does not have annual reviews, two fundamental things have not changed over time: employers need to communicate to their employees the expectations of their roles, and managers need to provide timely and accurate feedback to their employees on how closely they are meeting the core expectations of these roles.

Regardless of the system used, the most important aspect of any performance management process - and the most difficult - is the communications phase. This is nearly always the weakest point in any performance management process. Employee communications is where the work of managing for performance is actually achieved, and also happens to be the most time consuming portion of nearly any performance management process.

There are many good tools available to help with the processes of performance management. Obviously, a well-designed and easy-to-use performance management system in many HMC platforms can help measurably in this area. However, the system is the enabler of the performance management process, and in order to really achieve an improvement in performance management, one must master the basics of employee communications, or the system will simply not yield the intended results.

Here are 5 suggestions for how you can begin to enable good employee performance communications at your organization:

1. Empower employees with information: Let employees know what to expect before scheduling and holding performance-based meetings. Let each employee know how his or her exact role fits into the bigger picture of what the company is striving to achieve and how they contribute to the greater good. Stating this linkage in an understandable way is crucial to any progress toward improving performance.

2. Put it on your calendar: Commit to regular performance feedback “touch bases” with each employee you manage. For example, bi-weekly 1-1 meetings. These need not be lengthy - 30 minutes is often adequate, although scheduling 60 minutes every two weeks can be even better. Do not change the meeting schedule unless there is a genuine emergency, and in those rare instances, communicate the nature of the emergency to the employee impacted.

3. Let the employee take the lead: In preparation for 1-1 meetings, ask the employee to come prepared with agenda items they want to discuss, and let the employee work through their list first. A key focus of the manager during 1-1s is to listen for barriers that prevent the employee from being successful in his or her role, and then help remove those barriers. Ask your employee what you can do to help them achieve better outcomes - and if they need help with anything.

4. Focus on the big picture: While 1-1 meetings tend to focus on the immediate work and day-to-day issues, always take the opportunity to remind the employee how their contributions are directly linked to the mission of the company and how their work contributes to the larger picture. Showing how their work relates directly to keeping or adding new customers is always a great example to offer.

5. Adhere to the no surprises rule: A hallmark of a good annual performance review is that there are no surprises. To help to ensure you follow this rule, use the notes from your 1-1 meetings to create a picture of the annual performance for each employee - this should ensure you capture all major achievements and don't introduce anything new into the picture that may catch the employee by surprise.

Bottom line: if you want to improve employee and organizational performance significantly, ensure your managers are dedicated to communicating timely, accurate, and regular feedback to their employees, in a manner employees truly understand. Achieve this as a first step in your effort to improve employee performance and you will then be able to show measurable results in this area. Overlook the communications phase, or provide it with less than the time required for effective communications, and you're likely to experience low to no improvements in performance management, regardless of the system used.

I particularly like Dennis's recommendation about weekly touch base meetings - a practice I've used for the 25 years I've been a people manager.  Nothing beats a steady cadence of feedback that is part of an ongoing collaboration and conversation between manager and employee. - Joyce Maroney, Executive Director of the Workforce Institute.

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